Cost, Access, Environment
Alternatives Plentiful But Have Issues
Alternative energy is where it’s at these days in the minds of plenty of folks who are looking at the potential market for some mighty esoteric sources in some cases.
Take chicken fat, for instance.
Today, a minuscule amount of biodiesel in the United States is made from this gloppy substance -- yet it appears to be gaining in popularity.
The interested parties who have visions of striking the big one in chicken fat rather than crude oil includes an entrepreneurial twosome -- recently spotlighted in a metropolitan newspaper -- who arranged to come up with $5 million to build a new biodiesel facility in a small Missouri town near a poultry plant, where the fat supply is plentiful.
Given the flurry of activity and escalating interest in the alternative energy arena in general, it’s timely indeed that a session at the AAPG Annual Convention in Long Beach, Calif., focused on this topic.
Any meaningful discussion of alternative fuels -- many of which are decades away from being a reality -- needs to include a look at the fuels available to serve as a bridge between the future and today’s principally hydrocarbon-based energy sources.
Session co-chair and EMD president Bill Ambrose provided this view in his opening presentation in Long Beach.
“The session included a variety of different energy sources, such as biofuels and fuel cells,” Ambrose said. “The point I want to make is there is a variety of what we call non-alternative energy sources that are hydrocarbon-based that are something between conventional hydrocarbons and alternative energy that can help bridge the gap until the alternative sources discussed in the rest of the session come into their own.
“Some of these alternatives may not be fully developed until mid-century.”
Plenty of Mineral Potential
Given that the domestic oil and gas companies are increasingly being shut out of various hydrocarbon-rich locales on the international scene, it’s noteworthy that Ambrose’s talk focused for the most part on the energy minerals available in Canada and the United States.
These minerals include coal, coalbed methane, uranium, gas hydrates, gas shales, oil shale, tar sands and geothermal energy.
In fact, Ambrose noted the North American energy mineral resource is enormous. It contains:
- More than a trillion tons of identified coal, of which 275 billion tons is technically recoverable.
- More than 200 billion tons of oil shale.
- More than 250 million pounds of U308, producible at $30/lb.
- Approximately 690 Tcf of coalbed methane.
- Between 467 and 607 Tcf of shale gas.
- More than three billion barrels equivalent of tar sands.
- 2.4 x 1019 joules of identified and undiscovered convection hydrothermal resources (energy equivalent of 430 billion barrels of oil).
Ambrose added that the potential North American gas hydrate resource may be many thousands of Tcf. Although gas hydrates aren’t yet economically feasible, he noted they have been produced successfully in permafrost regions of Russia and northern Canada, and could become a sustainable source of natural gas within the next 10 to 20 years.
A Question of Costs
Despite the considerable available resources, recovering them is no slam dunk as technical, economical and environmental challenges must always be dealt with in varying degrees.
“A lot of unconventionals are very sensitive to price,” Ambrose noted. “Take oil shale, for example, where one ton of rock typically equals one barrel of oil. This is a tremendous resource, but production of that realistically can only be supported by good prices.
“The offsetting factor to take into account would be improved technology for getting that oil shale resource,” Ambrose said. “Technology is changing and improving, so oil shale could be produced even though prices are not as high as we’d like.
“The question is how high the price has to be for the improved technology to make the difference.”
There are major disposal issues associated with by-products of some energy minerals production.
For instance, a big problem with producing coalbed methane is economic and safe disposal of the produced water, which can amount to substantial volumes in some basins.
Disposal of radioactive material associated with uranium has long been a huge challenge.